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Hard lives on the high seas

From shipwrecks to scurvy and fatal falls to lightning strikes, life in the Royal Navy was nothing if not tough, as Roy and Lesley Adkins describe

A painting of a shipwreck
Published: April 8, 2008 at 5:04 pm
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This article was first published in the August 2008 edition of BBC History Magazine


After pumping out water for nearly 24 hours, the seamen were exhausted and the pumps were beyond repair. The weather was deteriorating and the attempt to save HMS Centaur had failed. Captain John Nicholson Inglefield later recalled how the seamen reacted: "Seeing their efforts useless, many of them burst into tears and wept like children… Some appeared perfectly resigned, went to their hammocks, and desired their messmates to lash them in; others were lashing themselves to gratings and small rafts; but the most predominant idea was that of putting on their best and cleanest clothes".

Only two boats got clear of the sinking warship, but in the vast Atlantic their chances of survival were remote, especially since they were “without compass, without quadrant, without sail, without greatcoat or cloak; all very thinly cloathed, in a gale of wind, with a great sea running!” After a fortnight Quartermaster Thomas Mathews died, and everyone gave up any hope. “It was somewhat comfortable to reflect that dying of hunger was not so dreadful as our imaginations had represented,” Captain Inglefield admitted. “Others had complained of the symptoms in their throats; some had drank their own urine; and all, but myself, had drank salt-water.” Shortly afterwards, land was spotted – the survivors in his boat had reached the Azores.

The sinking of the Centaur took place in September 1782, when a convoy from Jamaica to Britain was struck by a terrific storm off the Newfoundland Banks. HMS Ville de Paris and HMS Glorieux from the convoy also foundered. More than 1,000 lives were lost in this single storm – far more than in any sea battle of that era.

Even in the best of weather conditions, life on board a man-of-war was frequently unpleasant, particularly for those who were not volunteers, but had been ‘pressed’. Nelson joined the Royal Navy in 1771 and there was never a shortage of candidates like him for officers, but because of a constant need for ordinary sailors, the navy was allowed to take them by force. By law, press-gangs were only permitted to take seafaring and river-boat men aged between 18 and 55, but in practice they took anyone who was not an apprentice or a ‘gentleman’, giving them no time to collect possessions or contact family and friends.

Sixteen-year-old midshipman George Jackson was in charge of a press-gang in 1803 and he bitterly regretted the suffering. “We went to Shetland and carried off every able-bodied male we could lay our hands upon,” he said. “When the ship was on the point of leaving, it was a melancholy sight; for boat-loads of women – wives, mothers, and sisters – came alongside to take leave of their kidnapped relatives. I often repented having made a capture when I witnessed the misery it occasioned in homes hitherto happy and undisturbed. These were strange times when a youngster... could lay violent hands upon almost any man he came across and lead him into bondage; but such was the law.”

Merchant ships returning from lengthy voyages were targeted as a source of prime seamen who had been expecting to be reunited with their families after months or years at sea. The tragic story of William Skill, who drowned when he fell overboard from HMS Unité in January 1807, was recorded by the seaman Robert Wilson: "We pressed him out of the India fleet, just on his return from a three-year voyage, pleasing himself with the idea of soon beholding those he held most dear (a mother and sister) for whom he had brought presents many a long mile; and although in his time on board us, he had made away with most of his apparel for grog, which he was fond of, yet the presents remained untouched; hoping one day or other to take them home himself." As was customary with the belongings of dead seamen, everything he had carefully kept was auctioned off, with the ship's log simply stating, "Sold at the mast the effects of Wm Skill, seaman".

With so many unwilling hands, every precaution was taken to prevent them deserting, and shore leave was therefore rare. This set up a vicious circle, causing many men to desert as they could not bear being barred from land, or were unable to endure the long absences from their families. On board most warships, little work was done on Sundays, but the concept of weekends and statutory holidays did not exist.

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Press-ganged men also brought with them infectious diseases, because after being seized, they came on board in filthy clothes infested with lice that rapidly spread epidemic typhus in the crowded shipboard conditions. The seamen scratched lice bites and became infected by rubbing lice faeces into their wounds. The disease was also spread by coming into contact with lice faeces on the clothing and bedding of sufferers.

Raging dysentery

The 'flux' was another common complaint that included dysentery, gastroenteritis and food poisoning. On board the Rainbow in the West Indies in 1773, Surgeon Robert Robertson commented that dysentery (an intestinal infection caused by contaminated food or water) had hit them hard: "The dysentery still continued to rage amongst the people, attacking young and old; but none of the officers were seized with it. However, this is not much to be wondered at, if it be considered that they lived better in every respect, and were not exposed to so many hardships as the people were... What renders the dysentery on board of ships most distressing, is, that no certain method of curing it has yet been discovered."

The disease sailors feared most was yellow fever, which had a very high mortality rate, and they dreaded hearing that their destination was the West Indies, where it was so prevalent. It was often called ‘yellow jack’ because of the yellow quarantine flag flown on ships where men had contracted the disease, but it was also known as ‘the vomits’ or ‘black vomits’ because sufferers vomited dark bloody liquid.

The disease was a virus spread by mosquito bites, usually when the men were on shore fetching water or firewood for the galley stove. A few days after being bitten, the fever rapidly took hold, with death a week later or else a prolonged period of convalescence. This terrifying disease frequently overwhelmed ships’ crews, leaving only a handful of survivors out of several hundred previously healthy men. It was not understood that another fever – malaria – was spread by mosquitoes, though some surgeons experimented with Peruvian bark, from which quinine would be derived years later.

Scurvy was such a major hazard that a cure had long been sought. It was a slow and frequently fatal disease, whose symptoms included aching and stiff joints, while bruises, cuts and fractured bones failed to heal, gums became sore and swollen, and teeth fell out. Caused by a vitamin C deficiency, it was a disease that could be prevented, but it was only around 1800 that it was almost entirely eradicated by the widespread provision of lemon juice, as well as fresh vegetables. Only a few years before, surgeons were trying to cure sufferers by burying them up to their necks in soil! Maintaining supplies of good food on board a warship was a constant problem because without refrigeration it rapidly deteriorated. Once fresh food ran out, the crew lived off a diet of salted meat, ‘bread’ (actually ship’s biscuit, baked hard to help preserve it) and dried peas. The meat was often of poor quality, even before it had been preserved in salt, while if the biscuit got damp it could become infested with insects and maggots.

The water was often virtually undrinkable, especially as it was stored in reused wooden barrels, and the worst water came from the River Thames. If allowed to settle, it was more palatable, as the American seaman Joseph Bates recalled when on board HMS Rodney. The water had been stored for two years, and when each barrel was opened, he said, "applying our lighted candle, it would blaze up a foot high, like the burning of strong brandy. Before stirring it up from the bottom, some of the clear (water) was exhibited among the officers in glass tumblers, and pronounced to be the purest and best of water."

Water was commonly mixed with alcohol, such as rum, which made it less obnoxious and helped to disinfect it. For the seamen, the harsh daily routine was punctuated by the issue of their alcohol ration – beer, wine or rum. Although many officers felt that providing alcohol encouraged drunkenness, there was no question of abolishing it. Many seamen were undoubtedly alcoholics, and most drank as much and as often as they could. If they managed to get ashore, their money was soon spent on alcohol and prostitutes, and after years of service, most seamen were destitute.

Seafaring ancestors

Information about naval seamen comes from a variety of sources, such as ships’ muster books, logbooks and other official documents, as well as letters and journals written by the sailors themselves, or written for them by their messmates. A few also published their memoirs later in life. Archaeology can also play a part through the study of the skeletal remains of seamen of this period, which gives information about their injuries, diseases and diet. Increasingly, though, family history research throws up information from unexpected quarters, often bringing to light private collections and archives of documents written by and about the seamen.

By modern standards, naval seamen had to be extremely tough to cope with the conditions they faced, but for the lower classes it was a period when survival on land or sea was generally a struggle. Despite all the hardships of navy life, some men did volunteer. The majority of these had limited prospects in jobs on land and were attracted by the idea of being given meals, accommodation, alcohol, tobacco and medical care, as well as their pay. For many men the harsh life of a warship was little different from the struggle to survive on land, and the offer of a cash payment or ‘bounty’ to each volunteer was generally enough to sway them. The hope of prize-money, paid for captured enemy ships and cargoes, offered a chance, however slim, of making a fortune.

The hope of prize money, from captured enemy ships and cargoes, offered sailors the slim chance of making a fortune

Seamen received no form of pension except from the limited resources of the Royal Hospital at Greenwich, which was a charity not a medical hospital. This institution gave shelter to a few distressed seamen, and for those considered eligible, the fund paid a fixed sum as compensation for a wound or disability, or a pension to enable an ex-seaman to live in his own accommodation. Although such pensions were not generous, a wounded sailor with a pension might be better off than the thousands of fit sailors who were discharged at the end of the war and found there was no work. Those who did survive, fit or wounded, often lived to a surprisingly old age.

Top 10 hazards for Royal Navy seamen

A sailor needed nine lives to survive on the high seas

1 Fevers, especially yellow fever, posed the most dangerous threat, resulting from factors like poor hygiene, blood poisoning and insect bites. They ranged in severity from a mild illness to dying within 24 hours. The main problem was inadequate medical knowledge, because the causes of different fevers and effective treatments were largely unknown.

2 Scurvy was the main killer until the start of the Napoleonic Wars. It was caused by a lack of vitamin C and could easily be prevented by providing lemon juice, as well as fresh vegetables. Until that was widely done, thousands of seamen suffered painful and needless deaths.

3 Drunkenness was rife, partly because of the regular issue of alcohol and partly because the hardships and monotony left seamen little to look forward to except their next drink. Many accidents were caused by intoxication, which also induced fights. In hot or cold weather drunken men could easily die from exposure after falling asleep in the open.

4 Prostitutes went hand-in-hand with drunkenness. In port, warships invariably swarmed with prostitutes who smuggled alcohol on board, incited the men to riotous behaviour and relieved them of their money. They also helped spread all manner of sexually transmitted diseases, for which there was no effective cure.

5 Hernias were a frequent occurrence because warships relied on two sources of power: wind and human muscle. Hauling ropes, lifting heavy loads while the ship was moving violently and working machines such as the capstan strained the men's bodies. The worst jobs were pumping and handling full water casks. Hernias were so common that new recruits were examined for pre-existing hernias – not for humanitarian reasons, but to prevent fraudulent compensation claims.

6 Falls were common even among sober sailors. Those from masts and rigging were usually fatal and falls down hatchways were almost as bad. A fall to the deck resulted in broken bones that were generally untreatable except by amputation. Anyone falling overboard, even the few who could swim, usually drowned before being rescued.

7 Shipwreck was a major threat to all those at sea, and the annual death toll from wrecks was massive. Causes of shipwreck varied, but storms and fogs led to ships hitting rocks or being swamped, as did human error such as navigation mistakes or manoeuvring near dangerous coastlines. Ships' boats were not lifeboats and only had space for a small number of crew.

8 Lightning strikes were a special hazard for ships, and lightning conductors were not fully understood. Seamen were injured or killed not just when working on masts and rigging, but even when asleep below decks. With their stores of gunpowder, warships could be easily blown up by a lightning strike.

9 Surgery was itself a hazard because of the poor standards of medical knowledge. The only cure for many wounded or broken limbs was amputation, done without anaesthetic or any concept of hygiene. During and after such operations patients died from blood loss, shock, fevers or gangrene, and survival rates were low.

10 Battle came well down the list of hazards. A warship was more likely to encounter bad weather than an enemy ship. Even in the bloodiest battles such as Trafalgar, seamen had a better chance of survival than during a powerful storm. In fact, a storm that followed the Battle of Trafalgar killed many more men than the fighting itself.

Three sailors’ lives

They travelled the world, saw action in battles, witnessed mutinies and suffered injuries

George King (1787–1857)

Born at Hemel Hempstead in June 1787, George King was taken in by the Coram Foundation as an orphan. He was apprenticed to a painter in London, but ran away to join the marines in July 1804 and was wounded at Trafalgar. In 1807 he was in Cork, now a naval seaman, where he probably met his wife, later described as an Irish woman living in London. King was one of few seamen to remain in the navy after the war. On being paid off, he sailed to the United States, arriving in January 1832, but returned the year after. He survived on casual work in the London Docks and prize-money from his naval service. In 1835, aged 49, he obtained a place in Greenwich Hospital, where he died in 1857.

George Watson (1792–?) George Watson was born in September 1792 at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. In 1802, he sailed with his father on board a collier to London. When his father was pressed into the navy, George made his own way home. He became an apprentice with a merchant ship, but transferred at Quebec in 1805 to a transport ship on naval service. By 1808 he was an able seaman on board HMS Fame and the HMS Eagle, involved in convoy and blockade duties in the Mediterranean. In September 1812, he was badly wounded in a boat action and convalesced in Malta's naval hospital. He returned to England in 1814 and after a month in Plymouth's naval hospital he went to London to claim his Greenwich Hospital pension and headed home to Newcastle. He was still alive in 1826.

Daniel Goodall (1787–1857)

Daniel Goodall was born in Edinburgh, probably in 1787, and volunteered for the navy in 1801. At the end of 1801, he was on board HMS Temeraire and witnessed its mutiny when the seamen refused to sail to the fever-ridden West Indies. With peace in 1802, he left the service, but re-enlisted as a marine in 1805. He was with HMS Amelia for many years, but in an action against the French ship Arethuse in February 1813, Goodall was badly wounded in his left leg, which was amputated. He was discharged in November 1813, and returned to Edinburgh, with a Greenwich Hospital pension. He accidentally drowned near Edinburgh in December 1857.

Defender of the realm

The role of the navy in the Napoleonic Wars

The Royal Navy was vital during Britain’s wars against foreign powers, mainly the French. Warships prevented invasion and protected merchant ships, and they also blockaded enemy ports and captured merchant ships, privateers and warships.

Nelson shot to pre-eminence as Napoleon Bonaparte was rising to power to lead France in pursuit of global domination. All the major powers of Europe were caught in a kaleidoscope of constantly changing coalitions as they struggled to defend themselves or maintain neutrality. Their colonies were used like pawns in a chess game, and until the First World War, the Napoleonic conflict was known as ‘The Great War’.

For many years French armies reigned victorious on European soil, and only the natural moat of the English Channel, bristling with British warships, deterred the French from invasion. Once the British attained a precarious naval superiority at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, the war at sea was one of attrition. Napoleon was forced to bleed France of its resources to support his armies, but the blockade of his ports gradually stifled French trade and wealth, and the seizure of French territory diverted valuable commerce to Britain. Napoleon’s dreams of global domination dissolved as Britain’s navy whittled away the French Empire.

Roy and Lesley Adkins are authors of 15 books on history and archaeology, including the forthcoming Jack Tar: Life in Nelson's Navy (Little, Brown, October 2008)

PLACES TO VISIT National Maritime Museum at Greenwich www.nmm.ac.uk; Portsmouth Historic Dockyard with HMS Victory www.historicdockyard.co.uk; Historic Dockyard at Chatham www.chdt.org.uk


BOOKS A Social History of the Navy 1793–1815 by Michael Lewis (1960, reprint 2004, by Chatham Books); Nelson's Navy: The Ships, Men and Organisation 1793–1815 by Brian Lavery (Conway Maritime Press, 1990)


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